Category Archives: Week 12

Looking at my neighborhood with fresh eyes

my building

Street parking

Street parking

Estefanía Tocado

While I was walking around my newly discovered neighborhood, I could not have been more surprised by how ambient intelligence is full of invisible data traces (Starbucks Wi-Fi, smart phone signals, street parking paid from your smart phone, and hidden recording cameras).  This entire invisible infrastructure erases the boundaries between the public and the private spaces, integrating both in the urban space (Offenhuber-Ratti 39).  Many of these recording systems were functionally integrated into the architectural structure of street lights, traffic lights, and façade decorations of embassy buildings. As the integration into the city space is so well achieved, they are disguised under ornamental features that complement buildings, street lights, and windows.  So the first layer of visible distributed cognition were the Wi-Fi signs on Starbucks and Books a Million windows which offered their costumers free access to the Internet.  Other less accessible signs of the distributed cognition were hidden cameras in bank cash machines, under the traffic lights that regulate the traffic of Dupont Circle, as well as in the street lights and the corners of the buildings facing the intersection such as those at the Hotel Dupont.  Besides security reasons, traffic light cameras could potentially record traffic patterns and identify traffic problems and approaching vehicles as Carlos Ramos et al. suggest (16).


Diane J. Cook says that ambient intelligence has great benefits for the users by customizing their environments and unobtrusively meeting their needs, but she also raises the question of whether there is a bad use of data collection or when ambient intelligence performs corrective actions that are wrong (286-7).  In relationship to her statement, it is worth mentioning that for the first time this last Sunday I realized about the number of cameras that follow me in my building, starting from the front and back entrances to other cameras placed in the ground floor.  I was also surprised by the amount of distributed cognition on the buildings on my street.  The majority of them had hidden at least one camera at their front entrance, and they had others integrated in the gardens as in the case of the Moldavian embassy.  After my discovery I experienced a bit of the “big brother” syndrome that Cook adequately mentions in her article as well as issues of personal privacy and security.  As Ramos affirms, ambient intelligent environments involve real world problems so they deal with cases where some information may be correct, some other incorrect or missing (16).  Therefore, the potential loss of information and how it is managed is a fact to question or to take into consideration.  However, people navigating thorough Dupont Circle’s multiple street intersections did not seem to be concerned about it or even aware of it.  Most of their attention was directed towards reading their smart phones as opposed to being aware of what was happening around them.  Even less attention was paid to other forms of distributed intelligence.   Surprisingly enough, many of them continued texting while crossing the crosswalk.  The accessibility of an internet signal (e.g. Wi-Fi) was not even a question.  Distributed cognition and ambient intelligence has silently become such an integral part of the city lifestyle that most of its inhabitants do not even observe it.

hotel dupont

Works Cited

 Cook, Diane J.,  Juan C. Augusto, and Vikramaditya R. Jakkula. “Ambient Intelligence: Technologies, Applications, and Opportunities”” Pervasive and Mobile Computing 5, no. 4 (August 2009): 277-98.

Ramos, Carlos, Juan Carlos Augusto and Daniel Shapiro, “Ambient Intelligence-The Next Step for Artificial Intelligence.” IEEE, Intelligent Systems, 2008

Offenhuber, Dietemar and Carlo Ratti, “Reading the City: Reconsidering Kevin Lynch´s Notion of Legibility in the Digital Age” in The Digital Turn: Design in the Era of Interactive Technologies, ed. Zane Berzina, Barbara Junge, and Walter Scheiffele (Zurich: Weissensee Academy of Art, Park Books, 2012), 216-224.

The Field Work of Ambient Computing


I explored several blocks closed to Foggy Bottom Metro Station.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.32.53 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.06.09 AMHere is a photo I took from the outside of a dry cleaner. It was the first time I ran into this cleaner. But I can get much information about it through Internet by seeing the rate and reviews on websites. In this case, a new comer of the city will not feel lacking too much past experience of the city. She can get information from content-sharing platforms, which is created by other costumers. It is one kind of urban sensing: crowd-sourcing (Nabian & Ratti). The cities don’t unfold in front of people merely with their current look. They are also displayed on a timeline—extending into the past, as well as the future. By scanning the QR code posted. I can download coupons to my cellphone. I also got the information that the discount will end in the August. This cleaner also accepts payment by GW student card. I think it can be regarded as a viral sensing.Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.14.02 PM This method of payment didn’t built new infrastructure, but simply connected POS, Banking system and campus card services. This method provides conveniences by sensing consumers’ identities, and completing the payment at the discounted prices at the same time.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.27.51 PMOn the door of a coffee shop next to the cleaner, more small posters can be found. One of them looks like a bottle. It means that this coffee shop is one partner of TapIt, which is an association who promote bottle-less life-style. They have bound many cafe into a network that lets those who want water find those willing to provide it. People can find the locations of TapIt partners on an online map.  It expands each citizen’s perceived sphere of responsibility from the domestic space, to the space of the city, which might result in a more responsible urbanity (Nabian & Ratti). Another of them informs people that there is a security system built inside. I went to the website of the security company. Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.32.47 PMIt provides security services by utilizing the existing equipment (Another example of viral sensing). It is claimed as a system that can deal with various kinds of threats and users can operate it with smartphone.

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Some databases have been created to let people make better sense of service providers. People who borrow rental bikes might meet problems that they cannot find docks at a bike station when they want to put the bike back. If we cannot create more docks immediately, citizens can become distributed. A mobile app shows many pie charts that indicate the locations and numbers of bikes and docks. Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 2.27.00 PMData might be collected by the sensors that were built at the bike stations. It enables people to make better decisions. Similarly, with another app, people can input the expected arrive and depart time, and compare the parking fee nearby. The once hidden information now become public accessible.

IMG_2109The control system of traffic light better displays Ambient computing system’s capability of actuation. People can touch the sensor to tell the system that they want to cross. The traffic light will “decide” to change or not based on several factors in the context. Intelligent and assistive devices provide a mechanism by which AmI systems can executive actions and affect the system users (Cook, Augusto & Jakkula, 2009). However, I can’t say that these ambient computing devices I saw have intelligence. AmI is considered as a new challenge for AI and is the next step in AI’s evolution (Ramos, Augusto & Shapiro, 2008 ). However, I doubt that the maturing ambient computing is generated from AI. These systems still don’t have the ability to make creative decisions as humans. At this stage, they don’t distinguish themselves from complicated operation systems that run well-designed algorithms.


The last picture that I want to put here is one I took at Healy Hall. The poster encourages people to come back to the “real world”. However, I don’t think technology is leading us toward sort of ”fake reality”, although maybe we will never walk outside Plato’s caves and see the reality. But putting this argument aside, I think ambient computing are not creating virtual reality, but just provides us with information in unconventional ways.

Works Cited

Cook, D. J., Augusto, J. C., & Jakkula, V. R. (2009). Ambient intelligence: Technologies, applications, and opportunities. Pervasive and Mobile Computing, 5(4), 277-298.

Nabian, Nashid & Ratti, Carlo, “The City to Come,” in Innovation: Perspectives for the 21st Century(OpenMind),

Ramos, C., Augusto, J. C., & Shapiro, D. (2008). Ambient intelligence—The next step for artificial intelligence. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 23(2), 15-18.

Welcome to the city of the future.

Technology has found its way not only to our personal lives, but as well as to our communities. While most of our gadgets occupy a space in our homes or rooms, cities have been affected as well by the many advancements in technology. The City itself becomes a limitless canvas of collaboration, resulting in a constant feeding of human input (Nabian, 396)

While mankind has found a way to invent a vacuum machine that does all the work by itself, i think it’s important to ask ourselves why cities haven´t been completely touched by technology.  After all, Cities and the constructed spaces that they contain have been multiplying at an unprecedented rate, and the spatial production and consumption of mankind still far very much within the physical realm. (Nabian, 383)


Video: “A day Made of Glass”.

Surely, we don’t analyze how cities are designed or constructed, a lot of thought and analysis goes into building blocks and signals that help people navigate across city blocks whether they are traveling on foot, by bus or even in car. Have we ever consider this?  Have we ever given any thought to the image of the city?. “The Image of the City” is based on the hypothesis that the perceived quality of an urban environment is related to the degree to which its inhabitants are able to read its structure and to navigate and make sense of the environment. (Offenhuber, 217)

We are not far from the world portrayed in the film “Minority Report” where the city is a constant flash of information and images that adapted to each of it’s users.  Tom Cruise’s character got personalized images and messages through retina scans. And while governments may not register all our retinas right now, there is a more powerful tool they can use in their advantage: our mobile phones.


It is important to mention that this isn’t only a one-way process.  People can also contribute to improve the way we perceive the city.  Imagine the possibilities, you could be informed of traffic, public transport or public events through your phone’s wireless connection. Understanding this, we believe, will eventually enable us to also begin to understand why it is interesting for local residents of a city to explore it through a digital mobile system, not just tourists. (Kjeldskov, 738)

And while some apps like Waze now give us a live-feed of traffic conditions, technology in the cities could be so much more. For my field trip, i went  to 7th Street on Chinatown.  Even when you are just getting out of the Metro Station, the user is bombarded by color flashes and signals.

photo 2  photo_screen

It seemed that if your were getting close to Verizon Center or the Chinatown the use of electronic screens and colorful road signals proliferated.  If you walked just a few blocks away, you could see the typical D.C. architecture and design. Nevertheless, information is everywhere in both languages here. you can easily see that all retail shops and restaurants have signs for both languages.

photo 1-1  photo

This really make us wonder, how technology (present and future) is making traveling through a city a customized experience.  What used to be somewhat standard is turning to be a journey where different messages and options appear for each of the users walking the streets of any city in the world.  We are not only pedestrians of inhabitants, we are becoming something else.  A user-subject is a hyper-individualized inhabitant, and an interactive space respects the specificities of, and offers a customized experience for each one. (Nabian, 393) 

A new city is being constructed right now with the use of software or apps such as Yelp!, Foursquare or Waze.  With the introduction of devices like Google Glass we might be able to accomplish even more with constant information and real time access to it. Offering a real-time view of how the disposed items travel through the landscape of their daily lives will expand each citizen’s perceived sphere of responsibility from the domestic space, to the space of the city. (Nabian, 390)

The city of the future is just beginning…


Jesper Kjeldskov et al., “Digital Urban Ambience: Mediating Context on Mobile Devices in a City,” Pervasive and Mobile Computing 9, no. 5 (October 2013): 738-749.

Nashid Nabian and Carlo Ratti, “The City to Come,” in Innovation: Perspectives for the 21st Century(OpenMind),

Dietmar Offenhuber and Carlo Ratti, “Reading the City: Reconsidering Kevin Lynch’s Notion of Legibility in the Digital Age,” in The Digital Turn: Design in the Era of Interactive Technologies, ed. Zane Berzina, Barbara Junge, and Walter Scheiffele (Zurich: Weissensee Academy of Art, Park Books, 2012), 216-224.